Shannon Ward grew up attending protests and rallies for any number of causes, beginning in the 1960s, but the gathering she attended at Veterans Park in Huntersville on Sunday, July 25, was different. Ward lives just hundreds of feet from the Oehler Nature Preserve, the site of last year’s Colonial Pipeline gas spill, the largest such spill in North Carolina history and the largest in the United States in 20 years, and is fearful for what it means for the well on her property.
Standing on the steps of the Icehouse Stage at Veterans Park, Ward could only get about a sentence into her statement before she choked up, then continued to address the crowd of around 70 environmental activists and advocates gathered in front of her.
“I’m going to cry,” she said. “I’m so inspired that you all showed up for me.”
The rally was organized by the Charlotte, Mooresville and Asheville hubs of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental activist coalition focused on elevating the urgency of climate change solutions. Rally organizers decried the lack of attention that’s been given to the Colonial Pipeline spill since its discovery in August 2020.
They called on officials to hold Colonial Pipeline accountable for the massive amounts of gas spilled in the nature preserve, to stop supporting further pipeline infrastructure, and to support the passage of Joe Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps Act.
Speaking with Queen City Nerve during Sunday’s teach-in, Ward said that day was the first time in the year since she began to learn about the massive spill happening so close to her home that she felt any optimism.
“This is the first hope I’ve had,” she said. “I’m tentatively hopeful. I think the work is going into getting eyes here, but I don’t know if they can make it happen.”
The largest spill in North Carolina history
The Colonial Pipeline spill was first discovered by two teenagers riding four-wheelers through the Oehler Nature Preserve on Aug. 14, 2020. Ward said she knew something big had happened right away, as firefighters and other authorities closed the road outside of her home to public traffic.
Shortly after the spill was discovered, a Colonial Pipeline spokesperson reported that 63,000 gallons of gas had spilled, but that most of it had been recovered. Five months later, in January 2021, the company acknowledged that 1.2 million gallons had actually leaked from a five-foot pipe that had ruptured, making it the largest spill in the United States since at least 2000.
Ward wasn’t told the details about what happened until two days after the spill was discovered, and officials with Colonial began testing her well weekly from then on out.
Colonial most recently reported they have installed 177 wells at the spill site — 108 to monitor water quality and 69 to recover spilled gasoline — while also taking weekly water samples from nearby wells like Ward’s. The corporation has reported that no “petroleum constituents” have been found in Wards’ well or others on surrounding properties, but Ward said she hasn’t heard much from the company beyond that.
“They had a schmoozer guy who came out and pretended to answer questions for a while, and you’d ask him questions and he’d say, ‘Oh that’s a great question, I’ll have to check on that,’ and you’d never hear back,” she recalled. “But as soon as we got a lawyer, they quit talking to us.”
They did talk to some of Ward’s neighbors, however, as property records show Colonial Pipeline has bought three properties from landowners across Huntersville-Concord Road from the preserve, near where Ward lives. She isn’t asking them to buy her home, however, only for clear communication about what is happening across the street.
“They came to Huntersville to talk at a town meeting recently … but when they come here they just kind of give their party line; they have a speech and they say it and that’s the end of it.”
For Huntersville Town Commissioner Stacy Phillips, those meetings have been a low point in her nearly two-year tenure.
“It is probably the most furious I’ve been since being elected,” Phillips said of the February town board meeting at which Colonial Pipeline representatives made their presentation. “They couldn’t actually answer any of our questions. It was just canned speech from a Powerpoint, and if our questions diverted off of it, they literally couldn’t answer anything. That has been status quo with them ever since.”
Elected leaders and residents told Queen City Nerve that when they approached Colonial Pipeline for more clear data, representatives would simply point them to the company website, where monthly reports are issued.
While the monthly updates include how many barrels of gas have been recovered from the site, they are relatively basic and do not include detailed testing results. The company does regularly release detailed reports, but they are not made for non-experts like Ward to understand.
“You can find an almost 2,000 page document released every month,” she said of her online research. “The first one was 900 pages and this month was 1,872 and you have to wade through that, and you have to be a scientist to know what you’re reading. So there is no transparency; they’re not putting it in words that a layperson can understand.”
Phillips, who has worked in environmental health and safety compliance for a corporate real estate firm, agreed that information is not being shared in an acceptable way.
“I feel like I’m a pretty intelligent person in some aspects, so when I can sit and read these 100-page emails and I don’t understand what’s going on, it ticks me off because the general public doesn’t have the time to sit and read that mess,” she said.
Phillips recently invited Colonial Pipeline representatives to attend a town board meeting in August to update residents and representatives on their recovery efforts one year after the spill was discovered, but Colonial declined, stating that anything anyone needed to know is on their website.
Phillips posted the rejection letter to her Twitter feed.
“I feel like the public needed to know we’re really trying to do right by you guys, to do right by all of us, and they’re just so casual about the whole thing, it’s trippy,” she said.
In a statement sent to Queen City Nerve, a Colonial Pipeline representative wrote, “Colonial Pipeline remains committed to protecting human health and the environment. We communicate regularly with community members, local leaders, and regulators as we continue to make progress on product recovery and site remediation. Our dedicated response website serves as an up-to-date information resource, and we will continue our efforts to respond to questions in a timely manner, meet with residents, and host site visits for elected officials and media. These communication efforts are in addition to more than 10,000 pages of data and public documents readily available, weekly meetings, and monthly updates with state and federal regulators.”
Taking a stand with a sit-in
Hannah Stephens, a 24-year-old organizer with the Charlotte hub of the Sunrise Movement, got involved in the activist organization during the COVID-19 quarantines of 2020.
“So much was brought to light during the pandemic and I felt that it was time for me to stop sitting on the sidelines,” she told Queen City Nerve at Sunday’s Veterans Park rally.
Since joining up with the group, Stephens said she and others in the Charlotte hub have put “basically all of our resources” into raising awareness around the Colonial Pipeline spill.
“It is frustrating,” Stephens said of the apathy she’s seen in response to the spill. “I think people feel that, ‘It’s down the road and they’re cleaning it up so it’s no big deal and what can I even do about it?’ which makes a lot of sense, and that’s part of the reason why we’re here is you can do something about it. You can come out and hold them accountable, because our biggest fear is that Colonial Pipeline moves on and doesn’t continue to track this issue, and an even bigger fear is that we keep building pipelines.”
Following the teach-in at Veterans Park that Sunday, protesters disbanded only to gather again at nearby North Point Drive in Huntersville in an attempt to do just that. The group of protesters stood outside of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ house singing Sunrise slogans such as, “They try to stop us, but we keep coming back,” and giving speeches decrying Tillis’ support for more pipeline infrastructure.
Three activists staged a sit-in outside of Tillis’ home, first in his lawn and then his driveway, and stayed there overnight before eventually being cited for trespassing as they left on the morning of July 26.
Speaking before the action, Stephens told Queen City Nerve the Sunrise Movement hopes to put pressure on national lawmakers to pass Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps Act (CCCA), which aims to create opportunities for flexible, locally driven responses to meet employment, environmental, and recovery needs in light of the climate crisis at the state and local levels. The CCCA is part of Biden’s massive infrastructure package, which he has been negotiating with Republicans for months now.
Stephens said the protest was bigger than Tillis.
“We really doubt that Tillis will make changes but we hope that this pressures other Republicans and other senators to realize that a compromised infrastructure plan is not going to work for our future,” Stephens said.
“It’s only going to set us back because this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a change, and ultimately we do hope that President Biden hears the voices of this community, of this generation, and realizes that he cannot compromise on that.”
For Phillips, the protest was only a missed opportunity, as she believed it shed more light on Sunrise Movement than the actions of Colonial Pipeline and the consequences that residents near the site of the spill are facing. Speaking the day after the protest, and just hours after activists finally left Tillis’ driveway, Phillips said she was “furious” watching the protest play out on social media.
As a progressive in a relatively rural suburb of Charlotte, she knew how the protesters marching through the neighborhoods would look in the minds of her neighbors.
“They’ve taken something that’s so detrimental to my community and turned it into a circus and a PR stunt for themselves, and today people aren’t talking about Colonial, they’re talking about them,” Phillips said on Monday.
“I have not had a single person say a word about Colonial today. I’ve heard Thom Tillis, protesters, tents, trespassing, but nothing about Colonial … It stole the spotlight and the attention from people like Shannon who are going to be stuck with this for the rest of their lives. That upsets me.”
Phillips said she would like to see Gov. Cooper address the spill, as he is yet to even acknowledge it publicly, so that further efforts can then be made to get federal agencies involved.
Addressing the young protesters who showed up at Veterans Park that Sunday afternoon, Ward told them from her spot on the Icehouse Stage steps that she appreciated their refusal to settle for the spin that elected officials and corporations like Colonial Pipeline were offering.
She mentioned how she had seen the activist sphere change since her first time attending rallies in the 1960s.
“There was a move toward, ‘Let’s all sit at the table together,’ and the patriarchy kind of invited us to have a junior seat,” she told the crowd, “and I love that y’all have recognized that for what it is. It’s not the same thing, and we don’t want that place at their table, we want a different table where everybody’s treated fairly and people’s needs are met.”
Ward later told Queen City Nerve she is waiting to see how the spill will affect her family’s plans near the site.
Her mother and siblings were under contract with developers on an agreement for a 36-acre site near the site that has since fallen through, and though they won’t say it, she’s sure it’s because of complications from the gas spill.
“We’re still hoping the developer will agree to take it off their hands,” Ward said. “I never thought I’d wish for that!”